Geico cavemen are back from the dead. Why?

mangoduckThe Martin Agency resuscitated the Geico cavemen ads. They were some of the best ads on TV when they first aired in 2004, but now they’ve become part of the pop culture their creator so enjoyed mocking.

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a monthly feature called Ad Review, which will critique a locally-produced ad.

Sometimes it’s best to let things die a natural death.

Instead, Richmond’s Martin Agency resuscitated the Geico cavemen ads, which have been running all over TV for the last few weeks.

One features a caveman playing tennis against former star Billie Jean King. He tells her that he’s killing her. She tells him, “You’re not beating me. You haven’t even got a serve in.”

Why is the caveman in a tournament – with spectators – if he doesn’t know the rules of tennis? Without Joe Lawson, the series’ original creator, at the helm, the new spots fall flat on their hairy face.

The original spots were so successful at developing a cult following (with hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube) because of the details. In the great dialogue-free airport spot , a caveman carrying a wooden racket is on a people mover at LAX. He checks his boarding pass and happens to see a billboard for Geico with the offensive tagline, “So easy a caveman could do it.” His ‘80s era look, including a wooden racket, along with his subtle mannerisms make it great. Subtle is key. In an interview in December 2006, Lawson told me, “We obsessed over that tennis racket. We all knew that it had to be a 1986 Donnay Bjorn Borg racket. There wasn’t even a conversation.”

At the time, Lawson told me, “I’ve always said they’re not stuck in the Stone Age, they’re stuck in 1986.”

But that ‘80s aesthetic is confusing in the new spots. Why is the caveman using a wooden racket against King, who’s armed with a new alloy racket?

The second ad is equally flat. A caveman and his hot blonde girlfriend arrive at an exotic beach when a plane flies over with an offending banner. He says he’ll wait in the car. The cavemen have always been sensitive, but now they’re just irritable.

“With this new round of caveman work, we were really trying to stick to the same formula that worked so well in the past: Geico, intentionally or not, dinging cavemen,” said the Martin Agency’s Todd Brusnighan in a statement. “We want to remind viewers that our cavemen are still out there, and their struggles are still very much happening every day.

Therein lies the rub. The humor in the original spots was the juxtaposition between cavemen – whom we expect to be simple and or boorish – but who are in fact refined. That’s what makes the ad where one caveman orders Roasted Duck with Mango Salsa so funny.

But after years of watching the spots we get it: they’re sophisticated. There’s no more surprise.

The cavemen have also become part of the same pop culture Lawson so enjoyed mocking. One of Geico’s best ads was “Tiny House” which was so convincing that many people – me included – thought it was actually a new reality show. Again, the humor was Lawson’s dig at reality TV by showing us how absurd they are.

In retrospect, Martin was probably unwise to try to get any more mileage out of the cavemen, especially after a failed sitcom on ABC.

Side note: Lawson left the Martin Agency in 2007. He still lives in Richmond, but he’s been in LA for the summer. (Last year he worked on Will Ferrell comedy “Blades of Glory.”) He’s also been writing screenplays about the theme of fitting in.

I sat down for a series of interviews with Lawson in early 2008. One thing he told me about leaving advertising for Hollywood: “What you did in advertising is completely irrelevant. Nobody cares.”

Aaron Kremer is the BizSense editor. He covers startups, media and marketing, and investigative stories for BizSense. Please send story tips to [email protected]

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